The Chronicle Herald (Provincial)
‘Give yourself a chance to feel better’
Free, confidential online mental health supports available for Nova Scotians
While private counselling and virtual group sessions are working wonders for the mental health of many Nova Scotians, there are countless others suffering in silence — afraid or unable to speak up to get the help they need.
Samantha Hodder, Senior Director of Nova Scotia Health’s Mental Health and Addictions Program, says the launch of the new e-mental health program will hopefully inspire more people to take advantage of helpful self-serve apps and websites.
“We know it does take a lot of courage to put your mental health first and recognize that you may be having a problem, so we want to remind people that all of our services are private, confidential and free to access,” says Hodder. “Research has shown that these options do work — not for everyone, but for many people in many different circumstances — and they’re going to allow us to help individuals who aren’t currently accessing formal supports. We would encourage anyone reading this to give themselves a chance to feel better.”
The e-mental health services are designed to extend or complement existing mental health supports, not as a replacement for the higher level of service that some people require. Hodder says it’s all about providing the right services in the right place at the right time with the right provider, and e-mental health services have created a unique opportunity to do that for residents across the province.
“The past year has been about recognizing the impact that COVID has had — and continues to have — on Nova Scotians. Physical distancing and other public health measures that have been put in place to reduce the spread have been necessary, but we know they’ve left a lot of people feeling isolated and overwhelmed, with higher stress levels, different relationships and disrupted routines.”
The ongoing pandemic has also caused a spike in alcohol consumption. Since the brand-new Mental Health and Addictions website launched in June, it’s racked up more than 360,000 views by Nova Scotians looking for more information, online tools or the number for the Provincial Mental Health and Addictions Crisis Line (monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week).
“People have been looking for relief, so we’re seeing increased levels of alcohol usage and other substance abuse, which can have negative implications on mental health conditions,” says Hodder. “It’s been a difficult year.”
MATCHING NEEDS WITH SERVICES
Anyone can self-refer to schedule an interview with a mental health clinician and discuss their situation, and then she says it’s a matter of matching the person with the correct level of service for their needs. That could be inperson therapy or group therapy, or the clinician may suggest a selfmanagement option through an e-mental health service.
Dr. Andrew Harris is the Senior Medical Director for Mental Health and Addictions. When his team began reviewing the success of their programming, they identified that many people were having difficulty accessing the various inperson mental health services and supports.
“People are generally quite satisfied with the care we can provide, but they just can’t always get in, so we started developing virtual options even before COVID,” says Dr. Harris. “That preparatory work allowed us to stand up quickly (when the pandemic struck) and switch to providing care through electronic means — phone calls and video links.”
Even after it was safe to resume some in-person services, Dr. Harris says they have continued to see the benefits of helping patients virtually, both privately and in an online group setting. While this isn’t the right solution for everyone, there are many people who consider it an ideal set-up.
“Not everyone can find their way to an outpatient clinic or inpatient services, so we need to provide options that people can access anywhere,” says Dr. Harris. “When people have access to mental health services, they remain well in the community — and often, it can prevent things from escalating.”
Online platforms like Therapy Assistance Online (TAO), Mindwell and Breaking Free use a combination of interactive videos and virtual content to teach coping skills and practical advice tailored to each person’s needs. While each platform is anonymous and he doesn’t have access to anyone’s progress, Dr. Harris says his team frequently hears from users that they’re learning how to calm their emotions and focus on what they can change, while feeling generally happier and more mentally well.
Looking ahead to the younger generations who are already so comfortable with technology, Dr. Harris says it’s not difficult to see where the future is heading. There will always be a place for in-person support, but he and Hodder are both appreciative that the RBC Foundation has stepped up so generously to help launch Nova Scotia’s e-mental health program — bravely shining a light into the darkness where mental illness often hides.
“One of the biggest barriers for us in Mental Health and Addictions is the massive stigma that’s been associated for generations for brain-based disorders, so it has a huge impact when the public leans in and talks about these issues,” says Dr. Harris. “If we can shift the stigma, we’ll do more in one generation than all the money in the world can do.”